“Politicizing” tragedy

Bad things happen. Tragedies happen. When they happen, it’s good to help those affected, and it’s good to think about ways to prevent those things from happening again. If they can’t be prevented, it’s good to think about ways to protect us from the damage they cause in the future. These seem like normal responses, yet so often, doing these things gets blasted as an attempt to politicize a tragedy. I really don’t like that critique, and the critique itself seems to be more “political” than actually talking about solutions and prevention.

I haven’t looked at this systematically, but it seems like accusations that somebody is playing politics with a tragedy come more from the “side” that is against some measure, than from the side that agrees with it. For instance, imagine there’s a terrorist attack in a foreign country and a politician calls for a halt to foreign visitors from that country. Those who might be OK with shutting down immigration would be the least likely to jump, but those who are pro-immigration seem the most likely to counter the argument with an attack on the politician for “politicizing” the event. Or, imagine a hurricane floods a major US city, and politicians who have a history of calling for efforts to fight climate change start talking about the impact of climate change on our lives. Those who are against fighting climate change are the ones likely to make the attack that the politicians are “politicizing” the tragedy.

But is it a fair attack? It seems like an attack on the person (an ad hominem attack) rather than a counter to the idea. That alone troubles me, and us falling for it troubles me more. But even more so, if somebody has been advocating a policy shift to specifically address something, and that something happens, isn’t an “I told you so” kind of justified? If somebody has been spending their time and effort trying to get guns out of the hands of gang members, and a gang member shoots somebody in a shopping mall, is it all that crazy and awful for that somebody to point out that this is exactly why getting guns out of the hands of gang members is so important?

I think a lot of it comes down to how we view politics. Is it about “winning” or is it about making changes that we genuinely think are important. The cynics among us likely think it’s the former. That a politician advocates responses to climate change because it helps him/her keep his/her job. I have a hard time going there. It might be easier on some things than others to get a hint of that into my thinking, but generally speaking, I think that politicians have core beliefs about what is best for the country, or what is best for their constituents. I’m sure they have plenty of cognitive dissonance when their beliefs don’t fit with their voters, and I’m sure some change their public stance. But, generally speaking, I don’t think Nancy Pelosi feels strongly about environmentalism just because it’s a winning issue. I don’t think Paul Ryan feels strongly about lower taxes just because it gets him votes. Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m a fool for giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I just can’t swallow that they’re all playing a game, and taking sides against their core beliefs just to win. 

So why wouldn’t I hear about a school shooting and wish that we had gun laws that could have prevented it? Why wouldn’t I hear about record breaking rainfall and worry that it’s because we haven’t done enough to fight climate change? I think a better question is, why doesn’t it make everybody feel that way? That’s actually a bit more interesting to me. I don’t have any real answers, but I can probe my reaction to a terrorist attack. When a foreign national commits an act of terror (usually in another country), why isn’t my gut reaction to want to seal the borders and keep folks out? Well, mostly because I see that as an unfocused overreaction with consequences that make things worse, not better. I see it as playing into the narrative that the West hates the Arab world, and that narrative has made people want to become terrorists. So, is it likely that the same is true of people who don’t share my reactions to events? Of course. Why isn’t a wish for effective gun control part of the immediate response to a shooting? Maybe because the person thinks it’s an overreaction that won’t prevent the next shooting anyway. I think that’s totally fair, and I think it would be better if that’s what was said, rather than “stop politicizing the death of school kids.” I hope I can remember to do the same next time I feel like somebody is playing politics with a tragedy. 


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